Every so often, maybe walking home from school, you imagine someone's following you, maybe a spy, maybe a murderer. Your heart beats faster and you steal glances back. He's still there! You pretend to be in a hurry and walk faster. He's gaining on you! Then your shadow turns the corner, or gets into a car or stops to chat to someone and you realize that he wasn't following you at all. He was just a guy in the street. And you're relieved, but also a little disappointed. Nothing exciting ever really happens.
Except for Benjamin Pratt, it really does. And the bad guy? He's really bad. He's not some figment of a kid's imagination, but a real threat. An enemy to be thwarted. And Benjamin manages to, but reading this book, you're never absolutely sure that he will pull it off.
That's the genius of it. It's a book aimed at a young readership: 6 to 10 maybe, a little younger than the audience for Frindle, say. So you know things are going to work out in the end. That's never really in doubt. Somehow, Benjamin Pratt will triumph in the end.
And yet you sweat. It feels possible that he won't. It feels... real, as if this adventure could in fact happen. The authenticity of Andrew Clements' characters is astounding, as well as engaging. His characters are real children, behaving as real children would -- not superchildren, not magic children, not braniacs or gymnasts or anything. Just the kid you sit next to in Spanish class.
The book doesn't leave the reader any more satisfied than the first did, which is perhaps my one gripe. I think I would have preferred these to come out as one longer middle-grade novel, rather than as a series of short books, because each one leaves you hanging, still in the middle of the story, wanting to know how it will end.
Of course, that means I'm always ready for the next one. You will be too.